“The work of the Boyarins [post-zionist scholars] has been instrumental in deconstructing static notions of Jewish identity by theorizing an anti-Zionist politics without negating the importance of Jews’ connection to a place called Zion. The Boyarins turn to diaspora as a solution, "we propose Diaspora as a theoretic and historical model to replace national self-determination.’ The Boyarins see a future of permanent and celebrated diaspora, not just for Jews but for all people. The Jews’ two-thousand-year history of living apart from, and as part of, others’ societies is a model for future interaction of various groups. For the Boyarins, such a conception ‘allows a formulation of Jewish identity not as a proud resting place… but as a perpetual, creative, diasporic tension.”
from New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora by Aviv and Shneer
Both David Hartman’s article about Yeshiyahu Leibowitz and Aviv and Shneer’s book New Jews: The End of the Diaspora, speak to the dynamic tension between myth and reality. Their understandings of the Jewish world, though coming from markedly different places, can both be read through the eyes of the artist Maurycy Gottleib in his 1878 painting Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. Vis-a-vis Leibowitz, Aviv and Shneer, we are the artist in the rainbow kittel. Perched on the edge of the enlightenment, he is neither fully at ease nor fully an anachronism in his own tradition– neither a tourist nor a native. In my estimation, this is the predicament of the modern Jew, particularly as that Jew attempts to understand their relation to the modern Jewish state.
Aviv and Shneer construct an image of a world Jewish community that is in the process of redefinition, they ask, ““how did Jews ideas of home change once the mythic [Israel] had become the real.” (9) They explore how the Jewish state become a “civic religion” for diaspora Jewish communal organizations to rally around and through which Jewish community and identity חוץ לארץ could be strengthened. They recount how the American 'Diaspora Business’ envisioned/s Israel as both a refuge for the vulnerable Jews of the world, and as a site for the preservation of Jewish identity. They explore the voices of post-zionist scholars Daniel and Jonathan Boyarins, who question the necessity of a secular Jewish nation, stating that “the solution of Zionism—that is, Jewish state hegemony, except insofar as it represented an emergency and temporary rescue operation—seems to us the subversion of Jewish culture and not it’s culmination… Capturing Judaism in a state transforms entirely the meaning of its social practices.” (17)
Aviv and Shneer challenge the Boyarins’ diasporism, they posit that rather than defining all Jews as in diaspora, we should define all Jews as creating new and diverse forms of home. “Jews are committing to places, to concepts, ideas, stories, and spaces… and the tension between rootedness and movement should guide our thinking about identities and spaces.” I admit, I have a hard time understanding how their position differs from the Boyarins. Their definition of home is one in which Jews “exert power over space and place, and over one another, across different geopolitical boundaries, and through various media and cultural practices. To call a place home is a statement of power.” (23). Positioning them in a way that is much less ambivalent about particular Jewish power than the Boyarins. And yet they continue, “no home is permanent, no group is ever permanently rooted or permanently diasporic, and power over places, communities, and identities can be gained or lost.” (24) For Aviv and Shneer, it appears that they see promise in a rootedness that is multifaceted and diverse. The Boyarins resolve the modern dilemma of real and mythic Israel through anti-zionism, separating Israel into a (kosher) mythic zion and a fatally flawed political reality. Aviv and Shneer maintain an ambivalence about the centrality of Israel’s role in the global Jewish community, but do not go as far as the Boyarins’ anti-zionism insofar as they still see Israel as one of a multiplicity of Jewish homes. In my estimation, however, their understanding does not ultimately adequately differentiate between the mythic and the real Israel, and I find that their position still fails to address the problem of Israel’s reality, in which mythic and nationalist Zionisms are (seemingly hopelessly) intertwined
I chose to contrast Shneer and David Hartman’s article on Yeshiyahu Leibowitz for the sake of further exploring the tension between myth and reality. Hartman depicts Yeshiyahu Leibowitz as deeply cynical about the conflation of the mythic and the literal zion inherent in both secular and religious zionism. Though Liebowitz’s critiques are born of a religious framework, his critique of the Jewish state has deep reverberations with the secular diasporism explored by Aviv and Shneer. Leibowitz is deeply critical, not of the religious ideal of zion, or of the national aspirations of a Jewish people, but of the conflation of the two. His perspective is that the religious force imbued in the nation is what makes it caustic. It disempowers Judaism’s moral code and it handicaps democratic nationalism. Hartmen explains, “Judaism, with its concern for the worship of God, must serve as a critique of nationalism, it must expose all institutions to judgement. Judaism must make all Jews constantly vigilant about the intrinsic dangers of power.” Furthermore, “for Leibowitz, it is a modern expression of idolatry to make Judaism an instrumental value to serve human purposes. When God and Halakhah are used to enhance our political aspirations, our worship has become idolatrous, if we take idolatry to be the reduction of God to a means that serves human ends.” (72) Yet Hartmen never reveals how Leibowitz resolves this tension between mythic and real, between religious and secular.
Reading Liebowitz in the context of Shneer and Aviv, it isn’t hard to see that however disparate their perspectives, their conclusions are intertwined. I read Shneer and Aviv as a sort of aspirational zionism in which Jews seek justice in the many heres and nows of a modern global Jewish community. I read Leibowitz’s warning that the Jewish aspiration to live a strict moral code and the Jewish aspiration toward a democratic nationalism are irreconcilable. In both of these articles, there is a deep critique of the conflation of the myth of Zion and the reality of Israel. Neither Hartmen nor Shneer and Aviv seem to be interested in elegant solutions, but rather in exposing the complexities that underlie these oft oversimplified categorizations. For me, as for the man in the rainbow kittle, I can yearn for an imaginary time when myth and reality were somehow distinct, but I can never inhabit that reality. Aviv, Shneer, and Hartman, each in their way, deconstruct the religious and secular zionist realities that we inhabit. Yet the paths forward from these deconstructed places are no more distressing than the fate that befell the man in the rainbow kittle. Maurycy killed himself, and it’s my feeling that some part of our dreams will also have to die.